Silver Roll Continues Long After the Inauguration of the Panama Canal

Here we see the official inaugural voyage
on the Panama Canal made by the ‘Ancon’ on August 15, 1914
Image thanks to the BBC Panama Canal Gallery

Silver Roll labor force on the US government’s Canal Zone in Panama and the canal construction projects continued long after the canal inauguration on August 15,1914, ending the Canal Construction Period and marking the beginning of World War I. Although the canal operating period quietly started right after the waterworks were inaugurated the threat of mud slides and total blockage of all passage of ships would continue to hover over the “Big Ditch” for a long time afterwards. The era a little before and after 1914 would become a bench mark for a lifestyle for those Blacks who constituted the bulk of the work force.

The segregationist policies inherent in the Silver and Gold Roll system had, however, had propelled a lifestyle of work and virtual neglect of home life just as it had for blacks at any time during the history of the Canal Project and the ensuing isolation for many years to come. In fact, isolation and its negative pressure on the workers’ home life and on their national participation since the inception of the works in that preferred zone by the French back in the 1880’s and had always been a deteriorating factor. The West Indian workers, upon inauguration of the Canal in 1914, would remain virtual strangers to an area in which they had been the principal actors in a play they created.

The starting pay of 10 cents per hour for a 6 day work week, laboring from sun up and much after sundown coupled with a Jim Crow enforced labor code, became the rallying cry for Black laborers since their vital contribution to the Panama Rail Road way back in the 1850’s. These issues would continue to play a significant role in their grievances on what would become known as the Panama Canal Zone. The official policy especially concocted for Blacks with specialized Silver Only signs in post offices, rather than the “White Only” or “Black only” signs found at the same time in the U.S. south, would create a familiar scene for the White Americans.

Such an isolationist American attitude would transform a once virginal tropical Eden into an area of Panama that would not only become a magnet for the preferred West Indian serfs, but also an enclave of North Americans who were just as isolated even from the Latin Americans just emerging from colonialism themselves. In the majority of cases since those West Indian laborers who had been contracted were mostly unskilled laborers they would, by virtue of their social caste, be kept out of the nearby Panamanian Society.

Canal rules called for even further separation of the Blacks from all other contracted races, since regulations regarding them ever reaching the ranks of becoming skilled or semi-skilled employees, was predicated on the recruitment of all white Americans who were paid as skilled laborers. We saw the beginnings of this phenomenon with the “U.S. Nationality Restriction” of 1908. Skilled labor became synonymous with the white American race.

The period between 1910 and 1920 would further find that group of laborers which had long ago been looked upon as skilled employees, the Jamaicans, now relegated to being unskilled wage earners. They, the Jamaicans, who had been instrumental since the 1850’s in carrying the torch of success for all American ventures in the country of Panama had been the guiding force for the then tens of thousands of newly arriving first-time workers, were now the picture of demoted and disheartened workers before their peers. This factor, in essence, also effected the newly developing West Indian Silver Roll community, just beginning to see an agglutinating source that would keep them together; they would now become another part of the overall mass of the disgruntled Black labor force.

This story continues.

3 responses to “Silver Roll Continues Long After the Inauguration of the Panama Canal

  1. I lived in all of the Silver communities in existence during my growing years starting with Silver City which became Rainbow City (I look forward to your entry on this name change). It was, however, when we moved to the Silver Santa Cruz next to Gamboa that I saw segregation vs isolation. The commisarry was split in two and a road divided white from black. Not being around whites until then, a friend grabbed me when he saw me staring at a white kid and scolded “never do that again!”

  2. To Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comment which, btw, is not just a mere comment, it is a testimony of our accounting of the issues of isolation and segregation in the old Canal Zone. Thank you also for revealing some insight into the existence of “Silver Santa Cruz,” which I was not aware of.
    Please do keep in touch, your opinions are very valuable to us and very much encouraged.


    Roberto Cobert Reid

  3. Kyle & Svet Keeton

    That was a good comment! Still sad to me that people have to live through times like that! We are all the same and should always be treated the same. The problem is that those times are still going on in this world!

    Kyle & Svet